|By Edward D. Miller,
In the world of scholarly medicine, Johns Hopkins
is privileged to hold a hallowed spot. For years, we've
led U.S. universities in the amount of annual grant
dollars from the National Institutes of Health. We're
known as a pioneer in key laboratory discoveries and
bedside treatments. And we're recognized for moving
to an interdisciplinary model in the basic sciences,
which many academic leaders see as essential for curing
complex diseases in this era of genomic medicine.
And yet, when it comes to turning this wealth of medical
insights into marketable products, Hopkins is way behind
its peers. We're barely treading water as entrepreneurs.
It's easy, though, to understand why. None of us who
came to medicine before this modern era thought we'd
be tapping into our business and marketing acumen.
I assure you that during my medical school days, technology
transfer was not a hot topic. Today it's the frontier.
I realize, believe me, that we all face a steep learning
curve, and I know something about such challenges.
When I assumed the dual role of dean and CEO in 1997
without any formal business training, the gap in my
resume worried some trustees. Luckily, they had faith
I could be educated. My trustee-tutors during those
days included people who knew a thing or two about
building a successful enterprise—Mike Bloomberg, George
Bunting and Mike Armstrong. Today, I am living proof
that you can take an old-school anesthesiologist and
teach him to navigate the business side of American
So how can we extend this lesson throughout Hopkins
Medicine? First, we all must agree on why it matters.
The most fundamental reason is that commercialization
is the best way to turn the fruits of our bench work
into enormous public benefits. Having agreed on this,
we must identify our niche in a crowded field of academic
medical centers competing in this unfamiliar arena
of venture capitalists and biomedical industrialists.
How do we make the right contacts and persuade bottom-line-fixated
executives that our discoveries can be translated into
In our struggle to jump-start this campaign, we've
embarked on a multipronged approach that I think makes
enormous sense. I give you the key elements:
Seek guidance from the pros.
We've assembled 16 biomedical-technology experts to
give our investigators honest, no-holds-barred business
advice by listening to them talk about discoveries
they hope to bring to market. The Johns Hopkins Medicine
Alliance for Science and Technology Development evaluates
our researchers' presentations twice a year. Afterward,
these experts grill researchers on the additions they'll
need if they want to impress financiers and corporate
Find champions to open the right doors.
We assign an alliance member to each research project
considered to have development potential and task the
business leader to move that product to market. This
sometimes means the advisor/expert talks with company
or industry contacts, and they may need to coach their
investigators on ways to make the discovery more commercially
Provide bridge funding for promising inventions.
We ask the alliance members
to select two to three projects from each cycle of
presentations for a $50,000 award in “gap” financing—money
that buys investigators extra time to fine-tune their
work, pursue licensing agreements or search for start-up
Remove internal obstacles and red tape.
To remove institutional hurdles impeding technology
transfers, we've formed the Technology Opportunities
Program. Run by a large number of seasoned faculty
investigators, this program aims to remove needless
barriers to commercialization efforts. This group also
provides industry leads to research presenters.
Simplify the process.
For filing patent applications and licensing agreements,
we've turned to a Web-based system that makes it easier
to update documents and track submissions. This system
gives us a broader view of how faculty investigations
fit together, allowing us to market groups of discoveries
to interested companies.
Bring technology firms to your doorstep.
This pivotal step is unfolding right now just north
of campus with construction of the first research building
in the Science and Technology Park at Johns Hopkins.
I think the park will stand as a powerful answer to
our historic lack of a nearby site where scientists
could take their ideas and begin the early phase of
Think of the possibilities, as technology executives
regularly visit our labs, lunch with our investigators
and see the results of discoveries on our patients.
With all of these new approaches, firmly anchored by
the new biotech park, I feel confident that our trenchant
lag in transferring Hopkins discoveries into the marketplace
is about to change dramatically.